State insurance commissioner on state insurance exchange: It sucks!

Montana State Auditor and Insurance Commissioner Matt Rosendale

Sorry to use this unflattering photo of Matt Rosendale, apparently taken at the moment a bat flew into the room, but I ran into legal problems. I wanted to use this one, but I couldn’t get the rights from Dick Tracey. Anyway, we all know from civics class that the Montana State Auditor and Insurance Commissioner is in charge of the state’s insurance exchange. And we all know from Rosendale that Montana’s exchange sucks. The premiums are too high! My own personal insurer, Montana Health Co-Op, raised the rates on its silver plan 24% going into 2018, on account of Trump took away federal CSR payments. That’s bullshit, though, because when they submitted rates back in June, they specifically told Rosendale they’d be fine with or without CSRs. I quote the commissioner:

My department was advised by both companies just months ago, that with or without [cost-sharing reduction] payments, they would be able to honor the rates they provided to us and the public. Today, by their actions, they inform me that was not true.

What a screwjob! If only we had some sort of state official whose job it was to regulate the behavior of insurance companies. The commissioner insists he has no legal authority to hold them to their previously submitted rates, even though A) there was a deadline, and B) they specifically agreed not to do this. It’s no secret that Rosendale, a Republican, opposes the Affordable Care Act that created the exchange in the first place. It’s almost as though letting insurers raise rates and then publicly complaining about it serves three of his interests: his interest in friendly relations with the companies he regulates, his interest in watching Obamacare blow up, and his interest in harnessing the outrage of the ordinary voter.

But does it serve his interest in getting elected to the US Senate? Rosendale is currently the only Republican candidate for Jon Tester’s seat who holds statewide office. The exchange is his identity. Will voters respond to his bold message of “just look at this failed system I’m running?” You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links, maybe. I’m doing so much work, you guys.

No one can beat John Engen

Mayor John Engen and a guy who loves him—photo by Engen For Mayor Facebook

One fun thing about Missoula politics is that there are no polls. For all we know, Mayor John Engen won’t win a fourth term in next month’s election. Anyone who wants to bet that he won’t should contact me via email. In 2013, the last time he ran for re-election, he faced three opponents and got about 65% of the vote. This time it’s just Lisa Triepke, who was the subject of two Missoulian stories last week about the two houses, motorhome and used car she bought while she was also getting food stamps. Later in the week, the state found that she had committed at least 23 campaign finance reporting violations.

The Missoulian endorsed her opponent. One thing they did not mention is that he used to work there. Mayor Engen has enjoyed friendly coverage from Missoula’s only daily newspaper. For example, when he secretly enrolled in a 28-day inpatient treatment program for alcoholism last year, the Missoulian reported that he would be gone indefinitely for undisclosed medical reasons and left the story at that. He came back clean a month later and told us all what happened, simultaneously announcing that he would run for a fourth term.

All this is to say that the mayor’s position is comfortable. Sometimes it feels too comfortable, like when his estimate of how much we would pay in legal fees to buy the water company was off by a factor of twenty. The Mountain Water saga was a testament to the mayor’s power—both its efficacy and its potential to run unchecked. If buying the water works had proven to be a boondoggle, a goose chase, a white-whale scenario, who in Missoula’s existing political landscape would have stopped it?

It’s worth thinking about as we all get ready to vote him into office again. I know I’m planning to vote Engen, because Lisa Triepke does not seem like she would do a better job. Still, might the man himself do a better job if he were vying for our affection with someone else? That’s the subject of this week’s column in the Missoula Independent which, I admit, is strictly for the hardcore. But I recommend you follow Missoula politics from afar. They’re worth it for entertainment value alone.

In $3.6 million Merc giveaway, MRA is poor negotiator

The Marriott hotel envisioned on the site of the former Missoula Mercantile building

Residents of Missoula and its partisans abroad know about the years-long saga that is the Mercantile. A Macy’s as recently as 2011, the historic downtown building sat vacant for six years, thwarting various development plans until HomeBase Montana offered to knock it down and build a Marriott in its place. The city’s Historic Preservation Commission denied that permit, in what might politely be called a complex process. The city overruled the committee, and HomeBase demolished the Merc in April. Then, at the end of June, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency voted to give the project $3.6 million in tax increment financing.

It was not a bailout. Most of the TIF money reimbursed the developers for stages of the project that had already happened: $1.5 million for “deconstructing” the building by reclaiming its materials instead of demolishing it outright, $336k for preserving the old pharmacy, and $150k in reimbursements for asbestos removal. All these were conditions of the original deal, which HomeBase had already met without running into cash-flow problems. Any suspicion that the project might need our $3.6 million to survive was erased by developer Andy Holloran, who told the Missoulian the hotel would generate more property tax revenue than expected because developers had “added $5 million more to the total project costs, including 27 more rooms than the original design.”

What, then, did the city of Missoula get for its $3.6 million? The things we bought—deconstruction, asbestos abatement, the pharmacy, and a guarantee the project would move forward—were already ours. This TIF money neither extracted concessions from the developers nor saved the project. So is the MRA saying that paying $3.6 million to expand the project was a wise investment, because a bigger hotel will generate more tax revenue? If so, that’s a new vision of the agency’s function. Historically, the MRA has acted to encourage new development projects, not invested in ones that were already underway.

A lot of public money went to a private business venture in this deal. Given how little the public seems to have gotten, its worthwhile to ask in whose interest the MRA negotiated. Reimbursing developers for what they agreed to do on their own dime does not strike me as sharp dealing. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!

73 year-old man “lands in coma” after “encounter” with Missoula police

Justice

Last month, Missoula police responded to a complaint that a man on Higgins Avenue was shining a flashlight in the eyes of passing drivers. That man was 73 year-old James Smith. Commuters may know him as the guy who sits in his yard with a heart-shaped box during rush hour. According to police affidavits, Smith hit two officers with his flashlight when they arrived at his home on May 20. After he was detained, he tried to kick and trip them. Two days later, his daughter got a call informing her that he was in a coma. Here’s Dylan Kato at the Missoulian:

Stephanie Smith, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, said that in addition to the coma, her father sustained a skull fracture, multiple facial fractures, a concussion, respiratory failure, bruised ribs, organ damage, bruising and other injuries from the incident. While he was sometimes confused or disoriented before the incident, Smith said these symptoms, as well as amnesia, have become more prominent since he was hospitalized.

What happened between when Smith was arrested and when he was hospitalized with multiple head traumas is not stated. Who can say what put this 73 year-old man in a coma? It’s a stone-cold whodunnit, as far as the Missoulian is concerned.

The reticence starts with the headline: “State investigates Missoula police after encounter lands 73-year-old man in coma.” Whatever happened was not a beating or even an arrest. It was an encounter, and it “landed” Smith in a coma the same way Bugs Bunny’s hijinks land him in trouble. “Lands” is an odd choice of verb that reflects this headline’s desire to allege as little as possible. The pathological refusal to say anyone did anything continues in the opening paragraphs:

The Montana Department of Justice is conducting a use-of-force review after an incident involving the Missoula Police Department in May ended with a 73-year-old man hospitalized in a coma. James Smith spent several days in Providence St. Patrick Hospital before he was committed involuntarily to the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs. He was released to his daughter following a court hearing May 30.

That doesn’t even say who released him, much less how he got into that coma. It was an “incident involving the Missoula Police Department,” and it “ended” with Smith near death, but beyond that we cannot say. Maybe he fell down the stairs ten times before a metal press closed on his head.

Kato has a good reason to write this way. The matter is still under investigation, and a newspaper must be careful never to blame people for things they might not have done. The passive voice is a way to maintain a scrupulous objectivity. But it can also disconnect the facts of a story so thoroughly as to distort it. When Markus Kaarma was charged with murder after shooting a teenager in his garage, the Missoulian did not report that an incident involving him ended with a 17 year-old exchange student bleeding to death. We reserve such conspicuously softened language for the police.

Reporting potential instances of police brutality as vague situations that just happened is an industry-wide habit. It reflects a journalism that has become too deferential to police. On the cops-and-crime beat, the prohibition against attributing fault to cops is so powerful as to outweigh the prohibition against the passive voice, leading otherwise strong writers into paragraphs like this:

Missoula police Detective Capt. Mike Colyer said on May 24 that he was called to the scene shortly after 2:30 a.m. on May 20. He confirmed that Smith had been hospitalized after being detained, and that due to the potential use-of-force issue, the department followed best practices and asked the Justice Department’s Division of Criminal Investigation to conduct an independent review.

Smith has been hospitalized and detained, but for what and by whom go unstated. The injuries that put him in a coma are a “potential use-of-force issue,” reinforcing the vagueness of the passive voice with some old-fashioned Orwellian euphemism. One of the paragraph’s only active verbs pops up to shine a favorable light on the police department, which “followed best practices” by asking for an independent review [of how two of its officers put an elderly man in a coma.]

I want to emphasize that this style of writing is not Kato’s invention or even his choice. He’s following standard practices in daily news reporting, and wisely so. He’s working with limited information, and he doesn’t want to smear two good cops if there is somehow an innocent explanation for all this. Neither does he want to get his paper sued. He’s got editors combing his copy to make sure that doesn’t happen, while on the other end he’s got to worry about access. If cops think he wrote a hit piece on other cops, his job as a reporter gets a lot harder. I don’t want to blame Kato for having to work under these pressures. But I do want to draw attention to the system that pressures him, and the way news reporting bends over backwards to say nothing critical of the police.

Maybe it’s not just reporters, though. Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of this story comes at the end, when Kato paraphrases Smith’s daughter and her husband:

They reinforced that they appreciate the help they have received from the police department, as well as lawyers in the Missoula County Attorney’s Office and the Office of the State Public Defender, since they arrived in Missoula. “The people that we dealt with are very nice, including the detective and evidence people. Over all this we do support law enforcement, we understand that they put their lives in harm’s way,” Jones said.

It does look like they almost beat her father to death, though. I was going to say that we give police too much deference. We heap praise on them whenever they become vulnerable to criticism, so that the more evidently awful things they do, the more we announce our support. That was going to be my conclusion. But if this woman doesn’t agree, who would?

My shoulder hurts

An injury narrative

I started this blog in 2008, a few months after I had surgery to reattach my labrum, followed by a second surgery to clean out scar tissue from the first. The labrum is the ring of cartilage that holds the head of the humerus in the shoulder socket. Mine popped off during the 7:30am class at Renzo Gracie Academy, when one of the bigger boys inadvertently dislocated my shoulder. It made a bad sound. I lay on the mat with my arm a dead thing. “Don’t put it back in,” the instructor counseled me, in his hilarious Brazilian accent. I nodded, adjusting my hips and turning my wrist in such a way that it popped back in. It felt like getting hit in the face with a hammer. For the next ten days or so, until I got surgery, my arm would fall out of the socket whenever I leaned forward.

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